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    Two lives, two Londons

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in The Jerusalem Report on 29 November, 2021.

    Ark in the Bevis Marks Synagogue (credit: Deror Avi)

    The reprieve of the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue, the iconic Sephardi house of worship that has stood since 1701, is good news for those who know Jewish London, including me. London and its Jewish sites such as Bevis Marks played a major role in my life as a young adult.

    My London experience followed a childhood in distant Australia. I began my education at Caulfield North Central School, was a prefect at Melbourne Boys’ High School, and gained degrees in arts and law at the University of Melbourne. Then I went to England for rabbinic studies and to initiate my career. The elegant Bevis Marks was part of my London acquaintance phase. My first job was as religious director of the Association for Jewish Youth centered on the nearby Bernard Baron Settlement in Berner Street which was ruled by Sir Basil and Lady Henriques, the uncrowned king and queen of the East End. It was not, however, the same East End of the turn of the 20th century but it was its lineal descendant.

    That turn-of-century East End had geniality, while the West End had gentility. East End and West End were two worlds, two ways of life, two Londons. In the East End of the 1890s and early 1900s, Jews were arriving in vast numbers in flight from Eastern Europe’s pogroms. The establishment community regarded them as uncouth and uncultured. The tenement buildings they lived in were grey and grimy. Hardly any family had a decent place to live or a reliable means of livelihood. The East End was impossibly impoverished.

    Life was a constant struggle, but it had its warmth. The immigrants were desperate for safety, but it came at a cost. Their meager belongings were often rifled and stolen on the wharves. Landlords fleeced them: employers (often their fellow Jews) exploited them. They felt out of place, so they clung together in often tumbledown, insanitary shtiebels which the gentry snootingly called “minor synagogues.”

    Children, more adaptable, picked up a few English words and ways… but sometimes the boy who was paid a few pence as a Shabbos goy was himself Jewish and needed a day off for his bar-mitzvah. The massive Jews’ Free School had hundreds of pupils whom it tried to anglicise; in contrast, the most their parents achieved was a tzebrochene vernacular. Gentiles called the East Enders “the alien poor,” an unfriendly term but not necessarily antisemitic. The West Enders knew the newcomers were fellow-Jews but sniffed about their smells, sounds, looks and customs. There were a few Sephardim in the East End but most of the immigrants were Ashkenazim.

    Language symbolised the East End/West End divide. The West End gentry were proud of their English accents and dismissed Yiddish as “the jargon”. So did the “Jewish Chronicle”, which barely tolerated the Yiddish dailies. Even the immigrants’ friend Sir Samuel Montagu “did not look with particular favor” upon “Judisch.” But most of the newcomers could not understand anything else. The Board of Guardians admitted the need for nurses who “could understand the Jewish Polish jargon.” Anglicised ministers such as Simeon Singer and Morris Joseph had no respect for Yiddish. Singer called it a “linguistic monstrosity”; Joseph said it was not “an agreeable language to the sensitive ear”.

    However, Rev Aaron Asher Green of Hampstead in north-west London (whose synagogue I later served for seven years), did great pastoral work in the East End; he remembered his own upbringing, spoke Yiddish to the newcomers, and was even friendly with the Kamenitzer Maggid whose ways and personality were far different from his own.

    The two Londons eventually became reconciled. The model was Maida Vale, where the overriding aim was the acquisition of status, which generally meant wealth. Maida Vale was itself not so far removed from the earlier swathes of immigrants for whom street trading and broken English were axiomatic, but the respectable burghers of Bayswater W.1 (my first ministerial post was at the Bayswater Synagogue) and St. John’s Wood N.W.8 often pretended to be indigenous Englishmen and did not admit that they had come up from elsewhere. Similarly, the respectable people in Golders Green, Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb did not flaunt their background. Embarrassing roots (and fluency in Yiddish) had to be hidden, if necessary at the cost of attenuating their Jewishness.

    By World War I (certainly after WWII), Anglo-Jewry had transitioned into largely one community. Even the snobs were often erstwhile East Enders with new faces, new accents and new suits. The East End E.1. resident community was still massive but many families now lived in North London N.16, patronised the underground at Manor House and took the trolley bus from Stamford Hill. Petticoat Lane was still there, especially on Sundays. The kosher shops in Hessel Street were still functioning, and there were still dozens of little synagogues and a number of Hebrew booksellers, but the Yiddish dailies were gone and the “JC” reigned supreme (at least for the moment; new competitors would emerge later).

    The Ashkenazi Great Synagogue was bombed by the Germans and never rebuilt. The Jews’ Free School lost its East End moorings for the same reason. By way of contrast, Bevis Marks was not the downtrodden remnant that became of many of the Ashkenazi shtieblach. It was still a candle-lit place of glory for the Sephardim, but it did not serve a local community as the shtieblach did. Its Sephardi grandees had mostly lost their superiority. The London Sephardim were now rather few and scattered, centered in the suburbs with their top hats and headquarters in Maida Vale. They hardly ever walked to the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals but found other means of getting there. Nonetheless they were still desperate to save Bevis Marks, not for the sake of the East End but in the interests of history and dignity. For the moment it seems that they have succeeded.

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